Neve looked up from her thoughts. The roadside signage announced ‘A1 – Southbound’. They were heading home. She switched on the car’s radio.
They had driven in silence since she’d asked Raesan to pull over, into a gateway, a good twenty miles south of Skailton. With the boot left open to screen her, she had changed into a fresh blouse. She had shuddered at the state of the one discarded. But then what to do with Rat’s leather jacket. The smell of his aftershave, of his bike and the oil, offered much needed comfort. So she had laid it over her lap. But soon, and hardly realising, she found herself hugging it. And that didn’t pass unnoticed by Raesan. He threw an occasional look in her direction, his light tight about him.
On the radio, the next song played. She grinned. Talking Heads, Road to Nowhere. She’d adopted as her anthem when, after studying hard to get good grades on her ‘A’ levels, she then couldn’t go to university.
“C. O. P. D.,” the doctor had said. Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. “If she doesn’t change her ways . . . five, six, maybe eight years at the most.”
But Grandma Phoebe, always stubborn, wouldn’t change her ways. “Your grandpa bought me this feather bed. You’re too young, Nevey, to understand what I mean.”
She wouldn’t allow Neve to install central heating. “I remember the luxury of our first coal fire. You don’t know how it is when the only warmth is five families huddled around the campfire.”
She refused to sit out in the garden, even on the warmest of days. Yet when Bradstreet was harvesting, with all the dust and the chaff blowing in, Phoebe would open the windows. She had never a cigarette in her life, but had breathed in more than her share of dust and pollutants.
Yet the predicted eight years, at the most, stretched to eighteen.
The Road to Nowhere, because everyone ends up the same place, dead in a grave. But wasn’t the road supposed to be scenic? Wasn’t that what the song was about? Yet for eighteen years Neve had seen nothing but the fields around her, and Grandma Phoebe.
She sang along with Talking Heads. Glad that, despite the grimmen, she was still on the road. And, hey, that road at last was becoming more scenic.
“You’re off-key,” Raesan said.
She ignored him. Ignored the news, too, when it followed, her thoughts again busy with Rat. He was all brawn and bristle, not her type. And what was her type? Androgynous youth like, what’s his name, Lawrence, the cathedral school fifth-former she’d met at the Royal Norfolk Show when she was fourteen. He had kissed her – to the squeals of her school-friends. How embarrassing.
The newsreader’s voice brought her back. Grettesby Corner, near Richmond, had claimed another nine lives, bringing the total of dead this year to twenty-three. So far the police had released only the names of William Bibcock and Sandra and Nathan Whiskard, a family travelling to Scotland for a wedding.
Neve switched off the radio. They were the names she’d heard the women chanting, led by Zelina, on that afternoon she’d arrived. The murderous bitch. How could any of the Bellinn bear to stay with her. Neve looked again at the black leather jacket. And Rat was a part of it. He’d known, he’d done nothing. But, as she recalled, it was only with Zelina distracted with her own bitter concerns that the Bellinn had turned their backs on her. Zelina had held them all in thrall? Until along came Raesan, a full-blooded Asar. How much had he done to facilitate the break? She oughtn’t to scorn him.
“Whoa!” she suddenly shouted. She’d just noticed the sign: Blyth Motorway Services. “Take this turn—take the turn. I must shower and change and eat, and Friggle Jacks, I must sleep.” But Raesan zoomed past the turning. She glared at him.
“What? But we’re doing the journey in one, yeh? We had an early enough start.”
“Raesan, I am hungry. And I stink.”
“Get rid of that jacket then, yeh. You might smell better.”
“Just stop at the next services.” She hugged the jacket closer still. And dozed.
~ ~ ~
“Hey, wake up!” Raesan’s voice cut through her dream. Reluctantly, she surfaced, the dream slipping from her. It was a repeat of the nightmare, abducted by grimmen. But then there was Rat looking at her, eyes-to-eyes holding, just looking. She wanted that moment to last. Friggle Jacks, but it made her feel . . . strange, yet decidedly good. Until now with Raesan shaking her shoulder none too gently.
“Okay, okay, okay,” she snapped at him. Then sitting up, she saw with a shock it was close to dusk, and she’d no idea where they were – off the motorway and apparently in a car park in the middle of a featureless field, not a hedge in sight and a grass-filled dyke beside her. A hawk, two sizes bigger than a motorway kestrel, hovered off to her left. “Where the double-bleep are we?”
Raesan jangled a heavy fobbed key and nodded towards something behind her. She craned to look.
“Your room awaits. I’ve booked us in, yeh, but I had to use your name, Carpory. Might have got funny looks, yeh, had I said Mr and Mrs Uissid. Sounds too much like Wizard.”
Thoughts raced, numbing her words. She mumbled, “No.”
“I know don’t sleep, yeh, but, well, it would look funny me booking in just for one if that one were you. Yeh? I’ll carry your bag.”
“It’s a double,” she said as soon as he’d shut the door behind them. A double bed, freshly made, in a huge double room, freshly polished.
“A double, yeh, that’s what she said at reception.”
“You could have asked for a twin.”
“Twin beds—never mind, too late. Look, I’m taking a shower.”
“I’ll order us food. Put on some music and dine here together. Yeh?”
She took her overnight bag into the bathroom and locked the door, shaking her head, wearied of him. She emerged an hour later, scrubbed and refreshed, to the smell of garlic, and the kind of piped music that dulled her thoughts.
“Tra-la,” Raesan said proudly with a flourish, displaying the set-for-two table. King prawns in garlic butter. Wild rice topped with lightly cooked veggies. Naan bread. For desert, a scooped out melon filled with small fruits. It was colourful. “I didn’t think you’d want roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, yeh. Wine?”
“You know I don’t drink.”
“You do tonight. It’s only a Riesling, light and crisp. It won’t go whoosh in your head, yeh. Oh, and I like your blouse; it’s the one with the dragons, yeh? Come sit.” He held the chair away from the table.
She ignored it. She wanted to put her mobile, iPod and laptop on charge for the morning. Raesan patiently waited. Had he a knock on his head?
“Now?” Raesan again held the chair for her. “It’ll be cold, yeh, if you don’t it eat soon.” He planted a glass of wine in her hand.
“I’d rather have fruit juice. Or water.”
“Drink. Eat. Do as I tell you, yeh.” He sat opposite her.
She was dipping into the fruit before she asked him what the occasion.
“We need ‘an occasion’? But, yeh, it’s a walloping thank you. That’s twice now you’ve defended me. That makes it awkward for me, yeh. it hits at my . . . my maleness, I suppose.”
Neve could see how awkward; he was wringing the napkin that tight it would be permanently pleated.
“So, um . . . I have to . . .” He waved his hands like he’d lost his words. Or was he afraid to say them? “I have to say a walloping thank you, yeh. Does this make it right?”
“Raesan, I don’t need thanking. I defended you because I don’t like bullies. Besides, I wanted to ram a fist down that Zelina’s pretty pink throat.” She turned away. She didn’t want to think of Zelina.
“I’ve spoiled the mood, yeh?”
“No. Just . . . it made me remember. But, really, I ought to thank Zelina. Incarcerated like that, I did some reviewing of the memories. And coupled with what Tythwar and Gudrum said, I now have the answers. There’s no doubt of it, Regin-yorl is my grandfather.”
“Funny you say that, yeh, cos I’ve been thinking of your grandfather, too. You know you said of his signature, yeh, that it looked like Roger, but how does Rawn become Roger? Well Hrogn could look like that too. If you drop the H as the Germans do.”
She dismissed that Raesan was being so thoughtful and agreed, he could be right. Absent the H, Hrogn could be mistaken for Roger.
“But Hrogn’s not my grandpa. My grandpa is old. I don’t know how old but he had children who died—I don’t know when exactly, some time BC. He’s old, and my bet is he’s dying. That’s why he broke the Oath. One last child with his Phoebe. And that’s how I know where he is. With dying, he has returned to his mother.”
“Na, Cesar Reconciled. They all Reconciled except me.”
Neve shook her head. “Cesar didn’t, Cesar stayed. The one Cesar, not the three. But you’ve always known there was only the one. You just chose not to tell me.”
“I didn’t not tell you. I mean, I wasn’t hiding it. Na, I’m sure that I did tell you. Yeh. I did.”
“Well perhaps I were’t listening.”
“I’m what? Mellowing? What do you mean, mellowing? You make me sound like a wine.”
“But usually you shout at me.”
“I do not shout. When have I ever shouted? It’s just that I have the answers now and . . . I’m feeling good.”
“Oh, so another day you’ll shout again, yeh? And now you think you’ve the answers, what do you intend? To fly away and leave me here? This isn’t turning the way I intended.”
“You thought you’d get me into that bed? Forget it, Raesan. We’ve already talked about that.”
The look on his face, she thought he would cry. But he shook himself out of it. “It’s just . . . I don’t want you going.”
“Right now, my only intent is to find Tree Brunna.”
“Well don’t ask me, I don’t know, I’ve never known. I can’t even find the Norfolk commune, yeh, and I’ve looked everywhere. And if you think, yeh, most of Cesar’s brood are at that Candleshoe caravan place in Lindsey. That’s those who didn’t go back to Denmark, or to Lithuania or places. A shame we haven’t Lirabien Marskonung to tell us, he could have taken them anywhere.”
“I could ask Dove.”
“Na, I wouldn’t do that.”
“But Dove helped. She directed me north.”
Raesan laughed. “You think Dove intended to help? Na, she sent you north, yeh, full-knowing Zelina had grimmen to set upon you.”
He’d sat still long enough. He was up on his feet and pacing again. Neve swung her legs round, to sit sideways on the chair, the better to see him. She noticed his light was extremely tight. Was he angry or defensive? He wasn’t happy, that much she knew.
“Na, I wouldn’t ask Dove,” he said. “Anyway, why find your mother? She deserted you.”
“So she deserted, but she still needs telling. And I can’t believe you’re saying that, not after how you pushed and pressed me. ‘You have to tell her, yeh, before she begets any more.’ I could already have brothers and sisters all over the place. She must be told before there’s any more.” And that meant she must fly. She felt the panic begin to rise.
“Well, you’ll need a friend for that, yeh? I could come with you. I told Kerrid . . .” He stopped, both walking and words. Neve saw his fingers curling, the nails scraping thumb-pads. “See, I said I was going to see everywhere in this wide-wide-wide-wide world. But I got only as far as Ardhea. So, yeh, I’ll come with you. The antipodes. Don’t they like feet there?”
“I’ll consider your offer,” she said. It might be best not to openly thwart him, at least not yet. “But the antipodes must wait. First I have to find Regin. I know Tree Brunna underlies the land Count Alan once held. That’s easy to reason; didn’t Hawk bring Count Alan and Guy into Eldsland direct from Count Alan’s chase. And Count Alan’s chase was on land Hawk’s family, the Oddssons, once had held. Remember that frieze around the walls of Regin-yorl’s hall, that looked alike to the Bayeux tapestry? Well it was the Arnling’s saga, and the Arnlings were Hawk’s own family. It showed Inn Hrafn – the Raven, yea? – receiving land from King Gudrum. And that land was named Thrigg Brunna, Land of the Three Wells, only by 1086 it was known as Tree Brunna.”
“Busy-busy brain you have.” He didn’t sounded pleased. “Those three wells, yeh, were Wade’s, Cesar’s and—”
“Costringham Well,” she was fast to supply. “And it was Costringham Well that Abbess Leofrun wanted from Alan.”
“Costringham was Gunnhild’s dower-land,” Raesan supplied. “But your Bastard-King gave it to Alan the Red.”
“To taunt him. I’m sure William knew of their marriage. William had spies in Edward’s court; it’s a well-known fact. Those conniving Normans were everywhere. Anyway, I want another download from your memories.” Not that she needed Raesan for this but, after what he’d said, it was best to keep him sweet and feeling needed, at least for now.
“What, tonight, yeh? Now? It’s not what I . . . well, if you say. And is it to see Regin-yorl again?”
Neve winced at how he’d said that. “I want to see Gudrum on the eve of the battle of Ethandun. Cesar called him away from his men; I want to know what she said to him. I’m hoping that will confirm all my guesses.”
~ ~ ~
Gudrum watched her prowl through the numerous encampments that filled the wide valley. At every camp, she disturbed the men at their preparations. He knew who she was, though she covered herself in a black Arab robe. Twas she who’d told him of his Bellinn nature the day he’d allowed his cousin Rorek to believe him dead.
Twenty-two years gone. Yet he was what he was, and what was past could not be undone. Yet still it haunted him; he should have stayed. He should have helped Rorek defeat Erik Barn. Nej! Years gone.
Slowly she wove her way to his own small encampment, disturbing more men as she passed them. They feared her, the valkyrie. Despite all wanted to die valiantly in battle. they didn’t want it yet. His men, of course, knew different of her, or most of them did, those who weren’t mortal. Fellow Bellinn, many the sons of Cesar’s brood. They named him king, yet next to them he was nothing.
Walk, walk; how many times had he seen her walk on the eve of a battle. And how many times had he seen her weave through the aftermath, the reaper’s reward. She sought not the dead. She sought the wounded. She healed them.
She was drawing closer now, enough that he could see her eyes, see where they looked. Not at him. Beyond him, into the thick of his men. And not at the Bellinn but at one of the mortals. Inn Hrafn.
A word with you, Gudrum-king, Kin-of-Kings.
Not in front of my men.
There is a thicket beyond the brook. Meet me there.
He waited till she was long from sight, reluctant to discover her errand. Only when his men started to settle did he move.
“Mending a leak,” he answered Razimer’s glance. Razimer grinned. Gudrum knew how lady-like his words compared with the men’s. But he’d been raised in the court of Louis the Pious.
He found her waiting beyond the thicket, her eddying light his guide. She was straight to the business that brought them here.
“I will win this battle for you on the morrow. I will make it so you have your own land as a king.”
“You want that we show the white shield?” He asked it, though he couldn’t believe it.
Cesar laughed softly. “You think to yield will win you the battle?”
“I think these English will not cease their coming until all Danes lay dead.”
“That’s why you must leave it to me. I’ll have you win; I’ll make you a king.”
“And in return, you want what off me?”
“No more than a favour. That you allot land to Oddr Inn Hrafn – from the brakes above Gear River, where the waters meet, to the Honey-makers home. South Renegale Dales.”
“My Lady, that is specific. Yet you name places that mean nothing to me.”
“It’s the land to east and west of Costs Isle. It includes our Eldsland, Thrigg Brunna. Now do you know them?”
“Know, aye, But Thrigg Brunna, Costs Isle, that’s . . . that’s our Artred’s land. I have no right—”
“I am making you king, you’ll have that right.”
“But why?” Gudrum asked.
“I would have Inn Hrafn never to leave me.”
~ ~ ~
Neve mused on what she knew of that battle: the battle of Ethandun, on the edge of the downs near Westbury, Wiltshire, May, 878 CE. As it’s recorded, it was not the success that Cesar had promised. What went wrong? Did Gudrum refuse her? Would Regin-yorl – Artred – not agree to the gift of the land? Yet it couldn’t be that, for Gudrum did become King of Danelaw, as Cesar had promised. And the Arnlings saga-band clearly showed Gudrum-king giving to Oddr Inn Hrafn Thrigg Brunna. It showed the three wells and noted above them in runic script: Cesar’s well, Wade’s well, Serpent’s Well. That last was Costringham well.
Costringham. Cost’s heim. Not a hamlet, but a place bounded by a crook in the river. And that river made of Cost’s heim an island. It fitted perfectly with what Gudrum had said. ‘I, too, was speaking of Regin-yorl. But his true name is Artred; Artred of Costs Isle.’ And Tythwar had said of the gift to Oddr.
Yet, according to the monks who recorded the deeds in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, that battle was not a success for the Danes. Routed, they had fled. King Alfred then besieged them two weeks at Chippenham. Then oddly relented and granted to Gudrum the eastern lands known thereafter as Danelaw. He made but one stipulation. That Gudrum was baptised. Yet Neve knew that Gudrum had been raised at the Frankish court of Louis the Pious; he already was Christian.
Neve could find only one explanation: that those English monks in their recording had slanted their pens. The truth of the battle was more likely a lack of advantage to either side and thus Alfred sought a compromise.
But her concern wasn’t the truth of the Chronicles. Her concern was to find Tree or Thrigg Brunna.
She was certain now what had happened. After years of celibacy the ironic hand of fate had brought Phoebe to Artred-Regin. He had loved her, Neve had no doubt of that, and her grandmother had certainly loved him. A second nock Bellinn, living 6,000 years give or take a few hundred, he must have been known he soon must die. And thus he broke with the Oath to give his dear Phoebe his child.
Neve’s head swum trying to grasp the fact that her grandpa had been born circa 4000 BC. Before Stonehenge, before the pyramids, before even the rise of the Sumerian towns. Oh but she must hasten to find him. She prayed she’d not be too late.
~ ~ ~
Next episode: Rat